Isn’t it funny how marketers feel the need to promote their new products by degrading their old ones. It’s inevitable, really, that improvements highlight shortcomings, but it just becomes so glaring sometimes. Is there a right and wrong way to go about messaging an upgrade?
It Goes Without Saying
Product upgrades ought to improve on the shortcomings of the past, or you have a serious case of “the update treadmill” on your hands. In fact, if there’s no dirty laundry aired in the new version’s unveiling, you ought to consider whether an upgrade is really required!
Many bugs and shortcomings are widely publicized. Microsoft didn’t need to worry about devaluing Windows Vista when they talked about Windows 7 because the damage had already been done. It’s safe to air this laundry because everyone has already seen it!
Was It Really That Bad?
But what happens when you introduce a new product (or version) that addresses issues that weren’t widely known? Let’s consider a few tactics to introduce improved products.
Tactic: We have always been at war with Eurasia
This is the typical Apple/Steve Jobs tactic. Announce the new product and totally ignore the negatives of the old product. When the fifth-generation iPod Nano gained a camera, Steve Jobs lauded this as a major upgrade and tech sites heralded the demise of Cisco’s Flip video camera. But when the sixth-generation iPod Nano was introduced the very next year, Jobs glossed over the fact that the camera was AWOL. It’s like it never existed.
The “war with Eurasia” tactic requires extreme discipline and control, and getting users to believe it requires a reality-distortion field that few can pull off. If successful, it puts a shine on the brand, showing progress without exposing weakness.
Tactic: Even Better!
What do you do if you need to continue selling and maintaining the old product even while you’re introducing the new one? Head to “even better” land!
This is commonly seen in “durable goods” sales pitches, since it’s perilous to alienate users of your previous product. Jet airliner manufacturers have perfected this pitch, focusing on the positives of the old while building on them for the new. Examine Boeing’s press releases regarding the 787 Dreamliner and you’ll see lots of comparative adjectives like “higher, wider, and larger” and talk of “improvements“. You’ll also see careful comparisons with past products, building on them without tearing them down.
It takes care and work to massage a message like this, but it is critical if you want to continue sales and confidence in your old product.
Tactic: Parade of Progress
Many marketers try to focus on the positives while putting the old product in the rear-view mirror. Knock it down while at the same time pointing out the qualities you’re building on.
The General Motors “Parade of Progress” was typical of this approach, and automakers continue with this tactic even today. Since so much of their revenue depends on selling “all-new” products, car companies routinely exaggerate the newness of their wares. This hit a pinnacle in the planned obsolescence tactics that became widespread in the mid-20th century. Vendors are more careful today, but echoes can be seen in many durable but replaceable product sales.
Tactic: Out with the old, in with the new!
Disposable products benefit from a completely different sales approach. Examples are numerous, from household products to electronics, but obsolescence is one thing they all have in common: The “new and improved” sale requires ditching the “old and faulty” product post haste. Why would anyone want to buy it when the shiny new model is here? Who cares if a new soap formula makes the old one unsaleable?
But this approach is perilous for more-durable products. Pointing out the flaws in systems that will continue to be sold and used for years devalues more than the products themselves: It raises questions about the people and processes that selected them in the first place!
Startup companies often try to blow away the status quo, but this approach rarely succeeds. New products have to coexist, and swaying buyers by attacking their choices is a good way to be shown the door.
What’s Your Plan?
Selecting the appropriate marketing strategy requires consideration of many things. What kind of market are you entering? Are products durable or disposable? Do you have the attention of the world or are you trying to get noticed?
Enterprise technology companies should be especially careful about tearing down the status quo, and should caution their “public faces” against this. It’s all well and good to trumpet your new features, but listing the shortcomings of yesterday’s widely-used products just leads to ill-will.
Image credit: Laundry by tashalutek